The temples of Khajuraho carry perfectly chiselled images of gods, damsels, beasts and so on.

At first sight, the legendary western group of temples at Khajuraho, the quiet village in Madhya Pradesh, seem rather small. Bathed in the afternoon glow, the pinkish local sandstone take on mellow golden hues, bringing the sculpted figures to life — mute figures that have seen it all, from royal patronage and public devotion, to plunder and wanton destruction by invading armies, and jealous zealots. All figures, big or small, within reach of a sword or axe have been mutilated — legs, hands, nose, breasts,, sometimes an entire face — even animal figures have felt the blow. Not a moment’s thought obviously went into such mindless hatred, not a thought spared for the years of fond labour, for the precious extraordinary skill and artistry, for the sheer joy that such beauty gave the beholder.

How did these structures that draw people from all parts of the country and the world come about? Legend goes that the Chandelas worshipped the Moon God. One of them wooed, and seduced Hemavati, in nearby Kashi. A son, Chandavarman, was born. He built temples at Khajuraho, on River Karnavati. Subsequent members of the royal family added to the temples, totalling 85 at a time, of which only 25 now remain, spread over 21 Al Beruni and Ibn Batuta have reiterated the glory of Khajuraho, and the Bundelkhand kingdom. With the magnificence of Bharhut and the Guptas behind it, Khajuraho was destined for greatness.

The Chandelas gradually disappeared in the 13th century, and Khajuraho slowly sank out of sight, until T.S.Burt of the British army, on a chance mention by his helper, happened upon the lost temples while on a foray into the dense jungle. The marvels of Khajuraho were thus brought to light in 1838, a constant source of wonder and delight, sending visitors over the moon, ever since.

Several temples built

Succeeding rulers added to the original temples. AD 954 saw the exquisite Lakhmana temple built by Yasovarman and1002 saw the Viswanatha and Parsvanatha temples by Danga. Ganda built the Jagadambi and Chitragupta temples. Vidyadhara built the Kandariya Mahadeva temple — the largest, and most grand of them all. Smaller temples were built until right until mid 14th century.

Siva and Vishnu were the ruling deities, with the Sun also recognised as the life giver. Jainism was fast catching up. The styles were almost the same — Lakshmi and Saraswati, Nandi and Siva, all exist on the Jain temple towers, with a Mahavira idol in the sanctum. It is not clear whether the marauding hordes of Ghazni did all the damage, or later Mughal zealots. It is quite possible that a surging Jain wave overtook a complex Hinduism, and its temples, just replacing the main deity.

The Central Indian architectural style had not too tall towers, nor an enclosing wall. The temples were built on a high platform called ‘jagati,’ which provided a convenient open air ambulatory passage. Sculpted balconies were included in the larger temples. The larger temples had smaller towers and shrines in the four corners of the jagati, perhaps showing a belief in the ‘panchatatva.’

The roof of the main temple rises in gradients, ending in the final shikara or spire, tall and curvilinear, supposedly to remind one of the Himalayan peaks, the abode of Siva. A small natya mandiram is sited before the sanctum, with recessed alcoves in the sides, for royalty and dignitaries to watch music and dance offerings to the deity.

A makara torana, often carved out of a single stone hangs over the entrance, with fierce crocodiles holding it in place. Figures of apsaras, kinnaras, and gods dot the inner walls, with the ceiling cut in intricate geometrical patterns. The main towers carry repetitive figures of gods, and ‘parivara devatas,’ ‘dikpalakas,’ apsaras and sura sundaris, dancers and musicians, animals and beasts.

Figures range from the impossibly slender to voluptuous, all perfectly endowed with physical attributes. The faces are amazingly lovely, bearing various expressions. Ornamentation is at a high, with jewellery and attire well sculpted. Elaborate coiffures detail the attention paid to one’s looks, at all times. Frequently portrayed are mythical beasts with humans, representing the bestial beast within the man, who gradually conquers the beast. Going round the temple will show sculptures in sequence of the man first at the feet of the beast, a slave to worldly pleasures, and finally astride the beast, in full control of himself, while entering the sanctum.

Mastery of light and shade

The western group is the grandest of the temples, most visited. The landscaped gardens lead straight to the Lakshmana temple, and the Varaha shrine. The story of Krishna, including the legend of the demon Putana is sculpted on the walls. A three-headed image of Vishnu called Vaikunta Vishnu, presides in the sanctum — a human head in the centre, and a boar and a lion head on either side.

The Viswanatha temple houses a lingam, and pays obeisance to the Sapta Matrikas, Ganesha and Virabhadra. Inscriptions here refer to two lingams, one of emerald, now missing.

The Chitragupta temple is dedicated to Surya, the Sun god, housing an idol of Him as drawn by a chariot with seven horses. The famed erotic sculptures dot the outside walls. A 11-headed Vishnu, denoting the god and His ten incarnations can be seen here. Friezes of hunting scenes are beautifully chiselled, as are the unique wavy patterns interspersed with floral and geometrical motifs. The entire sculpted towers are a mastery of light and shade, recesses and projections in perfect symmetry, simply blazing with life.

Tall rib-like columns hold figures of gods, heavenly figures, humans — all in perfect proportion, perfectly placed in relation to each other. The result is that of a huge tableau going high up, with the viewer having to crane one’s neck to see it all. Perhaps the purpose was to show how small and insignificant the viewer is, in the presence of such dedicated art.

The Kandariya Mahadev temple, the largest, has a shikara reached by a series of 84 small shikaras. Hunters, warriors, dancing damsels, devotees, etc. coexist with loving couples on the walls. Three rows of large sculptures occur on the outer walls, a wonderfully detailed sight. All the temples have the sculpted figure of Keechaka atop a pillar, shown bearing the weight of the temple, denoting the strength of this Mahabharata character

Khajuraho has inspired many theories — some practical, others far-fetched. One theory suggests that the venue celebrates the celestial wedding of Siva with Parvati. The scenes show the beauty of a well dressed Siva stopping everybody in their tracks — women doing their daily chores, dressing up, applying alta to their feet, kohl to their eyes, bathing etc.

The Matangeswara temple is in active worship till today, Siva being the deity, attracting millions on the holy Maha Sivaratri day, around March each year — a time when the popular dance festival is held with these temples as a fabulous backdrop, under a moonlit sky.

Each evening at 7.30 p.m. sees the western group of temples come alive, playing host to the Light and Sound Show, a 40-minute programme. Well planned and presented, the story of Khajuraho is told effectively, the dark night shrouding the present, taking one back over the ages.